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Mitsitam Cafe puts indigenous cuisine on the map

WASHINGTON - The Mitsitam Cafe tops $5 million in gross revenues a year, serves between 500 and 2,000 visitors a day, purchases 30 percent of its supplies from indigenous providers, employs 55 people, does 80 to 85 percent of its sales in indigenous-provided high-volume foodstuffs such as buffalo, salmon, turkey and wild rice, and - courtesy of tourists drawn from all over the world to the place it calls home, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian - has placed indigenous foods smack dab on the map of international cuisine.

None of this has prevented the occasional Washingtonians, mostly those who don't like wild rice, take their frog legs French and only grudgingly eat their vegetables, to insist its menus have overtones of the pricey tourist trap and, worse, isn't always indisputably indigenous in its selections.

To assess the case of the gainsaying gourmets, Indian Country Today marched straight off for an interview with executive chef Richard Hetzler, but not before sizing up the possibilities. Sure, the management at Mitsitam has pulled quinoa salad off the permanent menu, and that's a problem; but it's no reason to insist the whole place has gone over to the tourists. The pricing concern is a non-starter - you can pay less at any MacDonald's, but you won't get smoked whole sardines with wild onions and green corn relish, or calabasa squash enchilada with mole verde, or dandelion greens with agave nectar vinaigrette, or a Three Sisters salad of beans, corn and squash. You can eat light and well for under $10, fully and well for about $12 to $15, for the full day at under $20; and if you really shoot the moon, you won't exceed $25. The variety of dishes and the range of prices make it possible for a family of four to keep the damage under $40. Each of these estimates includes a bottle of Honest Tea (co-owner Seth Goldberg committed to working with Indian suppliers and organizations long before a market niche existed for that).

So it is on the point of indigenous content that the brow wants to furrow a bit. Well ... quinoa tort with cilantro dipping sauce? Chocolate and coconut soup with cocoa-dusted plantains? Those aren't dishes you'll find anywhere else, but are they indigenous? Between the quinoa, mother grain of the Incas, and the plantain, a kind of ground-hugging banana-like vegetable, maybe so. Venison terrine? What's so indigenous about that? Terrine is a French term for earthenware containers food is prepared and stored in and served from, usually in cold slices, and terrine dishes take their name from the containers, so we've got them now ... but then venison too is a French term, and it stands for a food (deer meat) that couldn't be any more indigenous.

Now, though, at the South American serving station, they've clearly gone too far. Sea bass ceviche? Savvy what? No way that's indigenous, not with a Frenchy name like that.

But Internet research has given a short shelf life to our simple doubts these days. The lunch hour isn't out before we savvy this: ceviche (suh-VEE-chay) is South American Spanish parlance for an indigenous Peruvian fish dish. Later investigations suggest that maybe seafood ceviche, rather than venison, is the food that couldn't be any more indigenous. Rather than tracking down a deer, dressing it out and building a fire and all that, one simply netted a fish, sliced it thin and squeezed lime juice all over the raw fillets. The citric acids in the marinade actually cook the fish in its juices. If you want to get fancy, prepare a bed of tropical fruit or tuber and spread the fish on top of it - the Mitsitam has tried green papaya and sweet potato in this role, with mouthwatering results.

The gainsaying gourmets are pretty much defeated foes going in, then, and Hetzler completes their rout. Mitsitam (''let's eat'' in Piscataway) does combine indigenous ingredients for appeal to modern palettes and for its own purposes. A good example is the popular turkey and maple brine combination. Turkey is right up there with the most indigenous dishes of them all. The Northeastern tribes used maple brine, though we don't know today whether they paired it with turkey. But it's a flavorful combination, and the brine keeps the turkey moist as it awaits a taker in the station trays.

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In any case, Native peoples of the past certainly knew variety in their diets. If the Mitsitam terrines are more like meats prepared in molds, it's because Native peoples combined all kinds of meat loafs in all kinds of containers; terrine is simply a more familiar nomenclature. The cafe salads especially show a combinational flair that surely began with indigenous women as they gathered plants and root vegetables. The gathering of beets and radishes, fiddlehead ferns and fennel, cranberries and every kind of corn in Mitsitam salads is a tribute to their spirit more than to their recipes.

Recipes are consulted when available, but Hetzler will go beyond them when called for or when limited by availability, just as indigenous people did. His favorite foods to prepare now are the mole (MO-lee) sauces of South America, which often call for 45 to 50 different ingredients. Mole verde is the most familiar of them, but his prickly pear mole is a new one as far as he knows.

More indigenous suppliers are always wanted, but the volume Hetzler needs can be a challenge. Intertribal Bison Cooperative can provide 250,000 pounds of buffalo in six cuts annually, the Quinault provide plenty of salmon and the traditional cedar plank cookery, and elk may appear on the menu this fall because Native sourcing looks feasible. But churro lamb flock sizes aren't large enough yet, and the appearance of sorrel cactus syrup depends on the chollom bud harvest. For that matter, fiddlehead ferns are in season only briefly; and produce generally has to be supplied from near at hand or it can't be kept fresh.

But there will be a place for these and a multitude of other menu items over time, Hetzler said. The Mitistam keeps certain items on the menu permanently - ''What the main staples were, what got them through life.'' Other items rotate on and off, with a culinary emphasis on festivals of the season - strawberries show up in many dishes during the strawberry festival months of some cultures, as with the corn, wild rice and ''Three Sisters'' festivals of others. The Mitsitam's seasonal menus change on the equinoxes.

''We look at this as a living exhibit within the museum,'' Hetzler said. ''It's not just food service to us.''

Serious complaints about the food quality are few and far between - to the contrary, the Mitsitam has won stellar reviews from the restaurant guides. That's in part because the museum flew in cuisine specialists from the five regions represented at separate stations - South America, Meso America, the Great Plains, the Northwest and the Northeast. They gave the cafe its first and most important stamp of approval, not to mention useful tips.

Only one solid criticism remains to the gainsaying gourmets - where is the Polynesian station? The pork, taro, sweet potatoes, pineapple, seafood, shellfish - and how about a gourd cup of kava, laws permitting, just to loosen things up a little in Washington? Memo to messieurs Inouye, Akaka and Abercrombie, the Hawaiian congressional delegation, as well as Delegate Faleomavaega of American Samoa: a traditional Polynesian food station as one enters the Mitsitam would be a most fitting aloha, or welcome, to another great Native place.